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Questioning the death penalty

Friday, March 13, 2009

Moral quandaries aside, it's time to abolish capital punishment, professor says

—Story by Lori Craig

The death penalty seems to be falling out of favor, but it’s not because people morally oppose the idea of executing vicious criminals. Instead, capital punishment increasingly is debated in terms of how it is applied, raising questions of innocence and wrongful conviction.

So says Frank R. Baumgartner, the Bruce R. Miller and Dean D. LaVigne Professor of Political Science at Penn State University, in his book The Decline of the Death Penalty and the Discovery of Innocence (Cambridge University Press 2008, with Suzanna De Boef and Amber E. Boydstun).

Baumgartner and Jody Armour, the Roy P. Crocker Professor of Law at USC Law, discussed this shift in a Feb. 19 talk, “The Death Penalty: Shifting Public Opinion and the Question of Innocence,” sponsored by USC Law, USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, and the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics.

“In a democracy, the state is killing in my name, and if they’re going to kill in my name, I’d like them to get it right,” Baumgartner said. “There’s no reason to suspect that the state would operate flawlessly. We’ve never expected it to. But we’ve never applied the question of criminal justice from that dimension, certainly not the death penalty.

“It’s racist, it’s classist, it’s biased. It’s completely arbitrary,” he added.

Professor Armour, playing devil's advocate, countered by raising the issue of reasonable doubt, suggesting that society is willing to accept the consequences that come along with that burden of proof.

“We knew going in there we’re going to spend some innocent lives by pitching the standard at that level,” Armour said. “These are bad people. Do you want us to feel sympathy for a killer?”

It’s easy to say the system already has safeguards and there is due process, Baumgartner said, but it’s also safe to say there will be some human error.

For example, since the 1970s, 130 death row inmates have been exonerated.

“They were not pardoned. They were found innocent and released from prison altogether,” Baumgartner said. “Many of them had served more than 20 years, and all had served at least 10 years.”

He also pointed to a study by a Columbia Law School professor that said federal judges throw out 68 percent of state death penalty convictions.

“Isn’t that, though, just a necessary evil?” Armour said. “We want to express our condemnation in the strongest possible terms and shouldn’t be denied that. At the end of the day, maybe the cost is worth the benefit.

“At the end of the day, how many of us are going to have to worry about killing somebody and getting away with it?”

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